A few weeks ago Indonesia’s Mount Sinabung volcano unleashed a towering cloud of smoke. Despite its impressive appearance, this is a relatively normal occurrence for the Indonesian locals. The country is located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, putting it at constant risk of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, floods and tsunamis.
Miguel Hahn and Jan-Christoph Hartung – also known as Hahn + Hartung – are a photographic duo that travel the world looking for interesting projects to pursue alongside their commercial work. In their latest series, Beauty and the Beast, the two photographers travelled to Indonesia to explore how local communities have adapted to the constant threat of natural disaster. “We were impressed by both the beauty and the potential danger of the region’s natural landscape. That’s how the name came about. We wanted to find out what the possibility of devastation does to a country and its inhabitants. Volcanoes have always intrigued us, even as children. They feel both ancient and powerful. It is fascinating to see how they coexist with modern society,” the duo tells It’s Nice That.
Hahn + Hartung’s poignant series skilfully marries the perilous landscape with the absurd. Photographs of active volcanoes looming over golf courses and images of tsunami emergency switches feel surreal to naive Europeans: “We have developed our visual language in the last few years that we always try to apply. We use light to reveal an artificial-looking world that seems surreal and hyperrealistic at the same time,” Hahn + Hartung says. An image of a young boy lying across his desk during a tsunami drill may seem impossible to distant observers but makes a powerful point. The threat of catastrophe hangs heavy on Indonesia’s towns and provinces.
“We were very impressed by the spirituality that surrounds an active volcano. For many people, living near a volcanic crater is a sacred privilege. Others are attracted to these dangerous areas because of the fertile soil volcanic activity yields. Knowing that everything you own will be destroyed every ten years must drastically change your relationship to wealth and your perception of life,” the two photographers explain. Beauty and the Beast masterfully represents this liminal space between physical landscapes and the otherworldly. A lonely miner searching for sulphur on volcanic land may as well inhabit an imaginary, dream-like world with his backdrop of thick steam and impenetrable fog.
But photography is only a small part of the overall project. The two accomplished artists spend the majority of their time researching, visiting academic institutions and speaking to locals. “We read that Yogyakarta was home to the volcanology centre that observes Mount Merapi, one of the most active volcanoes in the world. So we diverted our trip to ask the volcanologist a few questions and take a couple of pictures of the centre. Our visit exceeded our expectations. He offered to take us up to the top of the volcano as he needs to install a new GPS measuring instrument. It’s safe to say we extended our trip.”
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